Drone Dragnet UAS Guide for Law Enforcement Officials

by Paul Cianciolo, FAA Safety Briefing

For law enforcement officials, the question of how to respond to a drone flying in the park versus nefarious or dangerous flying is not as black and white as opening up the “ticket book” and looking up a citation. Depending on an array of facts and circumstances, there are a host of federal, state, and local laws and regulations that need to be considered.

Existing statutory (United States Code) and regulatory (Code of Federal Regulations) rules do not permit state and local governments to regulate aircraft flight operations, aviation safety, or efficient use of the airspace. The Air Commerce Act of 1926 gives exclusive sovereignty of U.S. airspace to the federal government. Responsibility to ensure the safety of all operators in the National Airspace System (NAS) falls to the FAA, and citizens have a public right of transit through the NAS where not prohibited. When developing regulations and standards, the FAA must take all NAS users into account, and that includes unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and their operators.

The FAA is working to integrate UAS into the NAS, but UAS operations today pose a number of safety and security challenges. Coordination between the FAA and local law enforcement is essential, because we have different, but complimentary, roles. Law enforcement officers on the ground are in the best position to deter, detect, immediately investigate and, where appropriate, pursue enforcement actions to stop unauthorized or unsafe drone flights. It’s important to note that a civil action taken by the FAA does not impact any criminal enforcement action taken by federal, state, or local law enforcement.

ASI examining a FLYMOTION Unmanned Systems drone.

The FAA’s role is in safety assurance. As a matter of policy, however, the FAA’s compliance philosophy starts not with enforcement action, but rather by seeking to educate individual UAS operators about how they can fly safely under current regulations and laws. However, enforcement action will be taken for those who are unwilling or unable to comply with regulations.

In addition, state and local governments are enacting their own specific laws regarding the operation of UAS. Flight operations may also violate more broadly applicable laws such as assault, criminal trespass, or injury to persons or property. These statutes are available to law enforcement officers in order to take immediate action with respect to hazardous situations.

If you are a first responder and you are wondering about how best to proceed with respect to drone operations, this article is for you. It’s also a good read for any UAS operator to better understand law enforcement’s role in drone operations. Let’s take a look at some of the details of this responsibility.

Photo courtesy Drone360 magazine, Drew Halverson

Registration Check

All UAS weighing more than 0.55 pounds (8.8 ounces), including everything onboard or attached, are required to be registered and marked before flown outdoors (14 CFR section 48.15). In addition, the law (49 USC section 44103(d)) requires the operator to make the certificate of registration for the aircraft available for inspection when requested by a representative of the United States Government, or by any state or local law enforcement officer.

Law enforcement officers have a right to inspect the registration number and review the accompanying Certificate of Aircraft Registration, which the UAS pilot must carry in paper or electronic form. The unique FAA-issued registration number begins with either “N” or “FA,” and it must be readily visible on the aircraft. The N-number is generally used for aircraft weighing more than 55 pounds. Anyone with access to the internet can verify an N-number by using the N-number lookup on faa.gov. The FA-number is generally used for small UAS (sUAS).

If a law enforcement officer needs to verify a FA-number, they need to call their local FAA Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP) special agent. (To inquire about who your jurisdiction’s LEAP agent is, send an email to LEAP@faa.gov.) FA-numbers issued for model aircraft only are issued to the individual operator, and a single FA number covers all aircraft owned by that hobbyist. All other registration numbers are specific to the aircraft. As of March 2017, there were nearly 750,000 UAS registrations, and 92 percent of those are for hobbyist use.

To inquire about who your jurisdiction’s LEAP agent is, send an email to LEAP@faa.gov.

As stated before, the FAA starts with counseling and education but, if enforcement is required, the FAA may assess civil penalties of up to $27,500 for failure to register a UAS, including model aircraft. Criminal penalties include fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years.

Aircraft Use Check

“But officer, it’s just a toy.” It may be a toy, but it is also a civil aircraft. Under 49 USC section 40102(a)(6), an aircraft is “any contrivance invented, used, or designated to navigate or fly in the air.” The FAA defines an aircraft as “a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air” under 14 CFR section 1.1. Title 14 further defines that a model aircraft is an unmanned aircraft that is:

  • Capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere;
  • Flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft; and,
  • Flown for hobby or recreational purposes.

Under Public Law 112-95 section 336 (amending 49 USC), Congress makes it clear that the FAA has the authority under existing regulations to pursue legal enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft when the flight endangers the safety of the NAS. The same law requires that the model aircraft:

  • Be flown strictly for hobby or recreational use;
  • Be operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization;
  • Limited to not more than 55 pounds unless otherwise certified through a design, construction, inspection, flight test, and operational safety program administered by a community-based organization; and,
  • Be operated in a manner that does not interfere with, and gives way to, any manned aircraft.

When a model aircraft is flown within five miles of an airport, the law also requires the operator to provide the airport operator and the air traffic control tower (if present) with prior notice of the operation.

Photo courtesy Drone360 magazine, Drew Halverson

Pilot Check

Model aircraft operators do not require a “license” (pilot certificate) to operate as long as they are flying within safety guidelines and using a model aircraft as previously described.

If flying for more than recreation (i.e., flying for compensation or hire), the UAS operator must be a certificated remote pilot and operate according to 14 CFR part 107. The minimum age for a remote pilot certificate is 16. A certificated UAS operator must carry the certificate, which is a plastic card with a unique certificate number and personally identifiable information. Upon request by law enforcement, a UAS pilot may voluntarily present their certificate to show that they are allowed to fly under part 107 sUAS rules; however, they must show their certificate to a representative of the FAA according to 14 CFR part 107.7.

As of March 2017, there are approximately 52,000 people certificated by the FAA to fly UAS commercially in the U.S.

FAA Remote Pilot Certificate

Airspace Check

Model aircraft flying is permitted as long as the operator follows hobbyist aircraft rules and a community-based set of flight safety guidelines. However, if they are flying within five miles of an airport, they must notify the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower if available. Notification doesn’t mean asking for permission, but if a model aircraft is operated when advised not to, and it endangers the safety of the NAS, the operator is subject to enforcement action. If you are unsure whether the operation is within the five mile restriction of an airport — including heliports and seaplane bases — you can use the FAA’s B4UFLY smartphone app to check (see our Angle of Attack department for more). Also note that some hobbyist groups may have established a mutually-agreed upon operating procedure with the airport operator and air traffic control tower when flying from a permanent location within five miles of that airport.

While the 5-mile limitation is not imposed on part 107 operators, they are restricted to flying in Class G airspace. However, the FAA can issue an authorization to allow flying in Class B, C, D, and E airspace. The operator must apply through an online process at faa.gov that involves proving the purpose of operation and method by which the proposed operation can be safely conducted. As of March 2017, more than 2,000 airspace authorizations have been granted. If the remote pilot holds such a authorization, he or she must carry it during UAS operations. Referencing a VFR aeronautical chart (aeronav.faa.gov) to determine the classification of your local airspace is also useful.

If a UAS is flying in airspace where it is not authorized or poses an imminent safety issue, it should be reported to one of the FAA’s 24/7 Region Operations Centers (ROC). (See the “LE Reference Card” link at the end of this article for contact information.) If a drone is seen from the cockpit, report it to ATC.

Location Check

The FAA sometimes issues Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) — including for model aircraft operations. Some TFRs are actually permanent, such as those around the Washington DC capital region and Walt Disney World. Other TFRs are issued for VIP security, around major sporting events, and after natural disasters. You can check for the presence of TFRs by going to tfr.faa.gov or opening the B4UFLY app.


The U.S. National Park Service also prohibits UAS launching, landing, or operating a UAS from, or on, lands and waters it administers. You may also have state or local prohibitions.

To assist with awareness of TFRs in the UAS community, the FAA often uses a “No Drone Zone” social media campaign in advance of events driving that TFR.

Safety Check

In general, an unsafe UAS operation may look like:

  • Aircraft out of operator’s visual line-of-sight;
  • Flight over 400 feet;
  • Flight at night;
  • Flight at more than 100 mph;
  • Failure to yield right-of-way to manned aircraft;
  • Flight over people; or,
  • Operating from a moving vehicle.

For model aircraft, community-based flight safety guidelines generally address these issues. For civil UAS operators flying under 14 CFR part 107, these are the FAA’s rules that the remote pilot in command must comply with, unless the pilot has a waiver. As of March 2017, the FAA has granted nearly 400 waivers, which must be carried by the remote pilot.

If there is an accident involving a part 107 UAS, the remote pilot is required to report it within 10 days if there is serious injury or loss of consciousness, or if the damage is more than $500, excluding the UAS.

The FAA has the statutory authority to inspect and investigate whether aircraft are in compliance with regulations at any time. A law enforcement officer should gather information and report it to their FAA LEAP agent; however, there may be separate state or local statutes available to law enforcement officers in order to take immediate action with respect to hazardous situations.

To inquire about who your jurisdiction’s LEAP agent is, send an email to LEAP@faa.gov.

Just the Facts

Appropriate data collection during first responses and intra-agency communication help keep all levels of government positioned to both collect and share information that may be of interest to each jurisdiction. This information can include witness interviews, identification of operators, pictures of the location, and notification (through an FAA ROC) to LEAP special agents. Working together, we can help keep the NAS safe for everyone on the ground and in the air — and ensure that both manned and unmanned users can fly safely together.

ASI examining a FLYMOTION Unmanned Systems drone.

Learn More

Paul Cianciolo is an assistant editor and the social media lead for FAA Safety Briefing. He is a former U.S. Air Force “sky cop,” and a rated aircrew member and public affairs officer with Civil Air Patrol.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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FAA Safety Team

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